John Grisham doesn’t write about this shit. The gripping murder mystery about the young black man shot multiple times in his car by a police officer doesn’t become a New York Best seller. It does not become a best seller because there is no happy ending. There is no climax. The jury doesn’t find the defendant guilty. There is no justice. There is no peace.
Philando Castile was driving on the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her young daughter. Officer Jeronimo Yanez pulls him over, telling him his brake lights were out. Philando, like a responsible citizen, immediately lets the officer know that he is armed. Less than 30 seconds later, he is shot multiple times by the officer. Diamond starts recording and narrating everything that happened. Philando’s labored breath is heard in the background as he starts to die.
Somehow, though, the officer who shot Philando multiple times in front of a young child, and who kept his gun pointed at Philando as blood soaked through his white t-shirt, was found not guilty by a jury of his peers. Somehow, that officer who swore to protect and serve, but who instead killed and killed, walked out of a Minnesota courtroom to freedom. I would ask how this happens, but I already know the answer. It happened because Philando is Black. If you are not familiar with what it is like to be Black in America, let me explain.
Blacks are treated as second class citizens. Our ancestors were lynched and whipped; we were supposed to be free and equal. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than white men, one of many indicators that the vestiges of slavery still run deeply. If you are Black and get pulled over, you have to put both hands on the steering wheel, look straight ahead, and speak in your best phone voice to make sure the officer approaching does not feel threatened in any way, knowing that nothing may save you. If you are Black, educated, and applying for a job, you have to grit your teeth when your white interviews marvel at how “articulate” you are, which is simply a coded way of saying “Oh, I guess you’re not from the ghetto.” If you are Black and successful, be prepared to attribute your accomplishments to affirmative action or your firms’ diversity program – remember, you did not get there by your own hard work! And, remember that all of your success, education, integrity, and law-abiding ways could still end with you killed by an officer’s gun.
There are so many peace officers, of all races, who risk their lives every day to serve their communities and the greater good. For this, I am grateful. However, this does not mean we can ignore the systematic racism and culture of silence that pervades police departments across the country. Black people, especially Black men, are seen as dangerous and unpredictable to the majority, and are quickly described as “aggressive” for normal human behavior. These stereotypes are rooted in slavery and colonialism, where White missionaries and slavers were sent to Africa to “civilize” the continents’ people.
A paragraph about the evils of slavery and its present day consequences is not enough to truly explore the topic (this author suggests reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander). But make no mistake – this history brought us here. This is why in 2017, Black men and women are afraid to call the police when their house is burgled, lest they are assumed to be the perpetrator and shot on sight. When the majority ignores the roots and results of a system built to oppress, they are telling the Black community their lives are meaningless, and do not matter. This harmful rhetoric has found its place in state attorneys’ offices, city departments, and grand juries, culminating in a sickeningly low number of police officers prosecuted for excessive, deadly force. It then works its way onto juries, where 12 people somehow decided that Officer Yanez’ problematic racial profiling of Philando as a robber because his “wide-set nose” and subsequent decision to shoot Philando within 30 seconds of approaching his car window, was not a crime.
It is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting to see the Officer Van Dykes charged well over a year after shooting young Black man 16 times, or the Officer Yanezes and Officer Shelbys acquitted of a Black man’s death time and time again. As a Black woman who will someday have Black children, I fear the world of oppression and racism they will inherit. For now, though, we mourn Philando, Charleena, Michael, Eric, Walter, Tamir, and so many others; and we fight for the justice they never received.